In a struggling economy, all small businesses encounter obstacles, but the hurdles that independent presses face even in a good economy become much higher. Many habitual readers remain largely unaware of small press books, and March’s Small Press Month presents the opportunity to raise awareness of these vital contributors to the book world.
The smaller a press is, the less visible it is. I have noted with a mixture of amusement and disgust that surveys of small presses generally exclude those with an income under $1 million. Hundreds of small presses, however, take in significantly less than that, and produce perfectly fine books.
Those below that threshold find difficult challenges. Bookstores, whether or not they are part of a chain, prefer to order from distributors. Distributors are generally reluctant to carry books that do not generate a certain level of sales ($2000-$20,000). Even when a distributor will take orders for a title that does not rise to that level, the publisher may have to pay a significant fee or may be placed in the backlist or may not featured in the distributor’s regular catalog (meaning the bookstores are not aware of a title unless a customer asks for it). While some independent publishers maintain proudly that they survive just fine without bookstore orders, it remains the case that when people want to buy books, they generally go to bookstores for them, and without bookstore sales, the income for many small press publishers can be artificially low.
There are services which a small publisher can use…for a fee. Publicists will offer to write press releases for a fee (which may or may not be used by the recipients), marketers will write up a business plan for a fee (which may or may not result in spectacular sales even when followed), representatives will take small press books to various book fairs for a fee (where the attendees may or may not stop to place an order), various organizations will include small press books in their mailings to libraries and bookstores for a fee (which may or may not get trashed upon arrival) and internet experts will promise to place the publisher’s web address on the front page of every web search (which users may or may not click on). All these fees (and many service fees start at $300 or more) add up, and publishers could spend hundreds of dollars on services which may or may not yield results.
Getting attention is often difficult. Small press publishers will find that very few people will consider a novel from an author they never heard of. Readers have never heard of the author because small press books are seldom reviewed in major newspapers, and authors of small press books are seldom featured on national television. Awards committees tend to focus on books from major publishers, and awards that are open to smaller presses are generally overlooked by the national media.
Despite all this, small press publishers carry on. We share with the larger publishers a delight in discovering a truly great manuscript and bringing it into print. In fact, small presses take pride in publishing outstanding books that larger presses will not consider, not because the manuscript is poor, but because the mainstream publishers are unwilling to take a risk on them. Because independent publishers are less visible, we must work much harder for our books. Our titles must look better and the content must be more accessible. We must explore every avenue to reach readers, even when our efforts are scorned or ignored. What mainstream publishers do, we must do ten times over, to get even one-tenth of the results.
In this economic climate, the small presses need the support of readers even more. Independent publishers are worth checking out. Small press web sites are full of information, and often their quality is comparable to the larger presses. The time invested to research small presses can uncover great treasures.
Joan Marie Verba
Publisher, FTL Publications
Posted by Publisher at 3/1/2009 7:33 PM